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Adolescent literacy in Australia: Part 2

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

As evidenced in my previous blogpost, adolescent literacy skills leave a lot to be desired in Australia. Our Year 9 students perform worse than our Year 7 students across Reading, Writing, Spelling, and Grammar and Punctuation, according to NAPLAN data. Scores in Writing are particularly poor, and I do wonder whether that is in part due to the issues evident in Reading, Spelling, and Grammar and Punctuation. Those skills certainly help to lay the foundation for writing development. So, perhaps poor Writing is the product of not getting the rest right, and not directly, explicitly and sequentially teaching writing and its various subskills in secondary schools in Australia?

Extensive Year 9 disengagement, amotivation, test anxiety, and general apathy, was the expository rhetoric when the 2019 NAPLAN results were published. No doubt such factors played a part for some students. Why they are particularly significant factors in Year 9, but not Year 7, when arguably students should have more knowledge and skill in all domains, and more experience with assessment, is hard to understand. What I do know is that no one likes to write when they are not good at writing. The same applies to reading.

In my previous blogpost I talked about possible educational and psychosocial consequences of illiteracy. There are enormous economic consequences too, for individuals and society. Each year in Australia we have somewhere between 35,000 – 50,000 young people leaving secondary school early/ They are usually called ‘early school leavers’ in government policy and research reports. In 2014, we had 37,700 early school leavers, with a predicted cost to the taxpayer over their lifetime of $12.6billion, and the cost to the community estimated to be $23.2billion. In the same year, there were 46,000 24-year-olds not engaged in study or work. The cost to the taxpayer over their lifetime was estimated to be $18.8billion, and the cost to community $50.5billion. The data support a depressing trajectory in that if you leave school early (without a Year 12 equivalent) and by 24 years-old you remain unengaged in study or work, that will very likely remain the case for your lifetime.

For more on this topic of individual and socioeconomic cost, I recommend the recent report by Victoria University and The Mitchell Institute titled, ‘Each year of early school leavers costs Australia in the billions’, written by Lamb and Huo (2017). You can read a one-page summary here or the full report here.

Our hope surely is for good individual outcomes for as many young people as possible, alongside broader socioeconomic benefit. In this blogpost I detail the skills required for reading and writing, as well as assessment, instruction and intervention considerations in secondary schools.

Learning and labels

Most students in your classroom are typical learners. This is usually around 75-80% of students. Most students in your classroom who are struggling with literacy have a learning difficulty. Students with learning difficulties make up around 15-20% of students. What this means is that there is no neurodevelopmental reason to explain why they are struggling. Rather, it is the case that for some reason they have missed out on learning opportunities and a gap has developed between them and their peers. This can be due to a range of factors including poor health/mental health, poor school attendance, unaddressed hearing or vision problems, problems with attention and concentration, or poor-quality classroom instruction, to name a few. With increased learning opportunities and evidence-based instruction, it is possible for these students to catch up to their peers.

There are two other groups of learners. There are students with learning disabilities. This is usually around 3-5% of students. There are also students with intellectual disability. This is usually around 2-3% of students.

In terms of learning disabilities, the DSM-5 now uses the diagnosis of Specific Learning Disorder. This developmental disorder involves difficulties learning and using academic skills. Specific Learning Disorder has become the umbrella term for reading, mathematics, and written expression disorders in the updated DSM-5. The DSM-IV previously classified these as separate diagnoses. These disorders are now housed under one diagnosis with added specifiers.

SLD with impairment in reading includes deficits in one or more of the following:

  • Word reading accuracy

  • Reading rate or fluency

  • Reading comprehension

SLD with impairment in written expression includes deficits in one or more of the following:

  • Spelling accuracy

  • Grammar and punctuation

  • Clarity and/or organization of written expression

Usually for a student to receive a diagnosis of SLD, it must be demonstrated that:

  • There are persistent difficulties in reading, writing or mathematics

  • Their current academic skills are well below the average range on tests of reading, writing, or mathematics

  • Their learning difficulties began during the school years

  • Their difficulties cannot be better explained by developmental, neurological, vision, hearing or motor problems/disorders

  • Their difficulties are significantly interfering with academic achievement/engagement

  • Their difficulties have not been readily responsive to intervention/support offered over time

(APA, 2013; APA, 2020)

Students with intellectual disability (a Full-Scale Intellectual Quotient of 70 or below on a cognitive assessment) may present with language and/or learning problems but we should not let a diagnosis of ID (or SLD) lessen our expectations of and for students. IQ is not a strong predictor of reading outcomes following reading intervention (Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte, 1997; Vellutino, Scanlon & Lyon, 2000) and there is no known evidence to date demonstrating that children with low versus high IQ respond significantly differently to reading intervention (Stanovich, 1999).

Key points

Most students who are struggling with reading, spelling and writing do not have a neurodevelopmental disability and have the potential to catch up to their peers via additional support provision. This of course takes longer and requires more frequency and intensity of support as the gap widens.

The majority of learning difficulties are reading difficulties. The majority of learning disabilities are reading disabilities. The American Psychiatric Association (2020) reports this to be as high as 80%.

Students with learning disability may or may not catch up to their peers. Their difficulties tend to be more persistent and pervasive and require significant, intensive, high frequency intervention with expert staff, with variable gains reported.

Far too many young people are performing poorly in reading, spelling and writing, therefore we must be willing to examine our practice as one explanatory factor, and as one that we can influence as opposed to many other factors that impact student performance and outcomes.


The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View of Reading, first written about by Gough and Tunmer in 1986, states that Reading Comprehension is the product of Word Recognition and Linguistic Comprehension. The formula is:

R = WR x LC

That is, there are two distinct components. Automatic word recognition comes about through the systematic and explicit teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences and non-decodable sight words, with a lot of repetition and practice, and a focus on prosody and fluency.

Linguistic comprehension comes about through a focus on many skills, and I have written about it here and here.

The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL), The Rose Report, and the National Reading Panel (NRP) have all been clear that there are five key aspects to effective reading instruction. These are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

The best way to teach phonemic awareness and phonics to adolescents is via a systematic, explicit phonics program. I have listed a few options in the Resource section below.

Fluency is not really a skill. It is more so a product of various skills coming together. These skills include good decoding (established through explicit and systematic phonics teaching), automatic word reading (established though a lot of word reading practice of both decodable and non-decodable words), appropriate rate (knowing the speed to read at) and good prosody (knowing the patterns of stress and intonation to apply when reading). Timothy Shanahan wrote a very good blogpost about fluency recently. If your students are dysfluent readers, assess and target the distinct skills that together will lead to fluency.

I have written about how to explicitly teach vocabulary here. Via that blogpost you will also be able to access two videos by Pam Snow and myself that detail the why and how of vocabulary instruction.

Reading comprehension, like fluency, is not a skill. It is the product of many skills coming together and working together. Providing automatic word reading is in place, in very basic terms, students need:

  • an academic vocabulary

  • knowledge of sentence structure and how to make connections between sentences and paragraphs

  • inferencing skills

  • knowledge of text structure and text types (genre)

  • self-monitoring skills (independent monitoring of comprehension)

So, teaching reading comprehension is working out which subskill or subskills are lacking, then teaching them explicitly using text-level language as the medium. I have listed below in the Resources section a book by Oakhill, Cain and Elbro (2015) which is very helpful for instruction, as well as details regarding some programs that may be of use.

Reading profiles

Every student you teach will have one of the following reading profiles:

Able readers – good word recognition and good linguistic comprehension leading to good reading comprehension, but they still sensitive to instruction/benefit from the explicit teaching of reading and writing skills

Poor word reading only – poor word recognition (decoding) but intact linguistic comprehension (i.e. were they able to read the words they could very likely read for comprehension)

Specific comprehension problem only – good word reading but poor linguistic comprehension (i.e. they sound like accurate and fluent word readers because they are, but if you ask them about what they have read they will really struggle to answer general or specific questions about the text)

Mixed difficulties - poor decoding and poor linguistic comprehension (sometimes these students start out as poor decoders only, but given their inability to engage with text, text level language comprehension gaps develop over time)

Assessment is critical in order to ascertain the reading profile, so we can provide appropriate, targeted instruction and intervention.


To ascertain the reading profiles of students in order to develop an appropriate intervention plan, thorough assessment must be completed. I have written a previous blogpost on assessment in Victorian schools. While it was primary years oriented, the suggestions are mostly appropriate in the secondary years. Assessments that I commonly use with adolescents are either the York Assessment of Reading Comprehension (YARC) or the Neale Assessment of Reading Ability (NARA). Both assessments (you only need to choose one) take about 20 minutes to administer in their entirety, although I find it takes more like 30 minutes for students with significant reading problems. Both assessments give you data on word reading accuracy (decoding), fluency and comprehension. They can be purchased by schools for school use. Teachers, speech pathologists and psychologists have permission to administer them. Attending training and/or observing those proficient in their use is suggested.

Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (NARA)

York Assessment of Reading for Comprehension – Secondary Australian Edition (YARC)

Note, at the end of this blogpost, under Resources, there are some intervention programs listed which cover all aspects of reading.


Both spelling and writing are inherently harder than decoding and comprehending, because students are asked to generate information themselves rather than to decode/interpret what is in front of them.

The Simple View of Writing

The Simple View of Writing tells us that writing is the product of transcription and ideation. Simple, right? Not really. The skills required for writing, in basic terms, include:

  • transcription (effortless spelling and handwriting)

  • text generation (knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure, text structure and genre, audience and purpose, idea generation, idea translation)

  • executive functioning (attention, organisation, planning)

  • working memory (holding on to and manipulating information while planning and executing a writing task)

A good paper which expands on these complexities is:


I suggest reading:

Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016). A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Educational Psychology Review,28(2), 225-265.

I have also written a blogpost on handwriting instruction based on this paper.


Students must learn phoneme-grapheme correspondences for reading and spelling. They need to learn both skills, and ideally, they do this in tandem through explicit, systemic instruction in phonics and a focus on spelling patterns, word families and morphology. I have linked to some suggested below in Resources.


The go to paper for me on what works for writing instruction is the meta-analysis by Graham and Perin (2007):

It is behind an APA paywall but there are other versions freely available via Google Scholar.

Below are their ten key recommendations for instruction. They also discuss and refer to previous met-analyses. Note, they found all strategies listed to be effective, but they are listed in order from most to least effective in terms of their effect size in the meta-analysis.

1. Teach strategies for planning, revising, and editing

compositions (this includes the self-regulated strategy development model which has been found to be particularly effective). Another paper on this is here.

2. Teach strategies and procedures for summarising reading material (this improves the ability to concisely and accurately present information in writing).

3. Plan lessons to allow them to work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions.

4. Set clear, specific goals about what they are to achieve with their writing product. This includes identifying the purpose of the assignment (e.g. to persuade) as well as key characteristics of the final product.

5. Make it possible for them to use word processing as a tool for writing (it has a positive impact on writing quality)

6. Teach them how to write increasingly complex sentences. Instruction in sentence combining from simple through to complex will improve the quality of their writing.

7. Provide professional development to educators on effective instructional models for writing.

8. Involve students in writing activities designed to enhance their skills of effective inquiry. Examples of activities: describe the actions of people; observe one or more peers during specific activities; retrospectively ask the person being observed the reason for their action; write a story where the insights from the inquiry are incorporated into the composition;

** caution – be aware of what ‘inquiry’ means here

9. Engage students in activities that help them gather and

organise ideas for their compositions before they write their first draft. This can include reading and developing visual models.

10. Provide students with good models for each type of

writing that is the focus of instruction. Show many examples. These examples should be

analysed, and students should be encouraged to imitate the critical elements embodied in the models. And provide feedback!

Additional comments on writing instruction

Explicitly and systematically teach students the processes and strategies involved in writing. This includes how to plan, how to construct sentences, how to summarise, how to revise.

In terms of how much writing should be done, the literature is not clear with respect to adolescents. Increased writing time makes sense, but surely it is what happens during writing instruction and student writing that makes an impact, not just the additional time allocated to it.

You probably noticed that teaching grammar was not included in that list. Why? Because they found a negative effect in this meta-analysis. There are a number of reasons for this and you can read the paper if you want to read more about that, but in short, grammar was often taught in isolation or it was often a control in various studies. The key message is that teaching grammar is only effective in improving writing if it is taught in the context of writing. Teaching grammar in isolation is not effective for writing, it is only effective in improving knowledge of grammar, according to the literature. There needs to be a practical application. There is good evidence that grammar taught via writing has an impact on writing.

It is also important to note that we do not know what combination of instruction/strategies or how

much time spent on each is needed to maximize writing instruction for adolescents.

I highly recommend reading Table 1 on page 449 in Graham and Perin (2007) for definitions and details regarding effective writing instruction.

Other great reads:

Graham and Hebert (2011) conducted a meta-analysis looking at the effect of writing and writing instruction on reading. You can read it here.

Graham and Perin (2007) produced the Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools report, which further explores effective approaches.

Instructional approaches

We have talked about what to teach but the how matters just as much. Really the two must work together. Although it interests me very much, I am in no way an expert on pedagogy. Rather than writing about the how and confirming my naivety to you, I have listed two key readings below. These will give you a sense of the research that exists regarding pedagogical approaches and what is most effective when teaching all students, but particularly students with learning difficulty or disability. These papers have assisted me in transforming my teaching, alongside Hollingsworth and Ybarra’s (2017) Explicit Direct Instruction: The Power of the Well-Crafted, Well-Taught Lesson.


Books about learning and teaching

How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Education Psychology and What They Mean in Practice (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020)

The Knowledge Gap (Wexler, 2019)

Why Don’t Students Like School? (Willingham, 2010)

Books about vocabulary instruction

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction – 2nd Edition (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013)

Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Quigley, 2018)

Books about reading instruction

Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook (Oakhill, Cain & Elbro, 2015)

Thinking Reading: What Every Secondary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading (Murphy & Murphy, 2019)

Closing the Reading Gap (Quigley, 2020)

Language and the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It (Seidenberg, 2018)

Speech to Print – 3rd Edition (Moats, 2020)

Books about spelling instruction

The ABC's and All Their Tricks: The Complete Reference Book of Phonics and Spelling (Bishop, 2007)

Books about writing instruction

The Writing Revolution (Hochman & Wexler, 2017)

Free online resources from the Institute of Education Sciences and What Works Clearinghouse

Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices

Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade (much remains relevant)

Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades (much remains relevant)

Scripted/heavily scaffolded intervention programs suitable for adolescents (not free)

MacqLit (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension)

Reading Tutor Program (decoding and word recognition; reading practice)

Sounds-Write (phonics, word reading accuracy, fluency, initial morphology)

Spelling Mastery (spelling)

There are several good programs in existence, in my opinion. I am not recommending one over another across reading, spelling or writing. I have mentioned the above programs because:

i) I have used them myself with primary or secondary students after completing the training and/or have worked together with educators to implement them

ii) I have seen them used with good effect based on pre- and post-test scores

iii) They have been developed based on the reading science and follow an explicit and systematic teaching approach

Most of these programs come with their own tests (e.g. placement tests) which allow you to commence students at the appropriate level.


Jasmine Lane is a high school English teacher who writes about using research in the classroom to close the achievement gap:

Jon Gustafson is a primary school teacher who writes about teaching and learning and he has some great tips for reading and writing instruction:

Dianne and James Murphy specialise in adolescent literacy:

Kerry Hempenstall, Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at RMIT University, has an excellent blog, and here are two blogposts on adolescent literacy:

Pamela Snow, Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at La Trobe University, writes about literacy, language, research translation, teacher training, and at-risk groups.

John Kenny is a primary school teacher who writes about teaching and learning.

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